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My father farmed in Kansas and envied those lucky farmers in the wetter states to the east of us, who could grow 200-bushel corn and other lucrative crops like soy beans and sugar beets. He had to satisfy himself with wheat, a drought-tolerant crop first brought to the States from a place in Russia much like ours. There, they called such arid places “steppes.” Here, we called them “plains.”
To look at the pale-green buffalo grass that covered the High Plains, you would never suspect that an aquifer holding as much water as Lake Huron lay beneath. But we knew about the aquifer. Its waters seeped to the surface in some otherwise dry creek beds, feeding rare ponds where we sometimes went fishing. And my pioneer grandparents had drilled down into the aquifer and erected windmills that we relied on to pump the water we needed to exist.
The technology to tap more water from the aquifer arrived in the 1940s, but it wasn’t until the mid-sixties that my family had saved enough to drill our first irrigation well. Bumper profits rolled in. By the time we sold our farm in 2006, we had five wells pumping 200 million gallons out of the aquifer every growing season. In all, Plains farmers were pumping 6 trillion gallons. That’s 1.5 trillion more than the Colorado River carries to the Southwestern United States.
The Ogallala Aquifer is vast. It underlies portions of eight large states — 174,000 square miles of crop and rangeland all the way from South Dakota to Texas. But it is also invisible. So it’s not surprising that until the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline erupted, few people had ever heard of it. Then for several months, its melodious name was broadcast all over the national news. Now that the aquifer is safe from the pipeline (for the time being), there’s another risk worth examining: industrial agriculture.